Learning in a Forest
by Suvi Krista Westling, VisitEDUfinn Pedagogical Expert
How do the animals survive the winter? Where is the carbon dioxide stored and how to count it? These and other questions are posed by students when brought into nature during a school lesson. The outdoor nature as a learning environment is perfect for raising different questions and thus being one of the key ‘aids’ for a teacher when starting an inquiry-based lesson. Not only for biology but physics, arts, sports, or even social sciences the outdoor nature environments provide a great pedagogical scene. The power of the water at a river flow or the aesthetic forms of a snowflake can create valuable insights for students to be later used in classroom settings.
In Finland, we have a long tradition of using forests and other natural locations as learning environments, especially in early education but also with multiple school subjects and age groups. A typical biology lesson would start with an observation of water quality with bottles and magnifiers and then returning to the classroom to study the topic from the books. Parents also spend time with their children in nature, skiing, hiking, or doing other seasonal activities, thus modeling a safe way of moving in nature and enabling a diverse environment for growth.
What then are the benefits of using nature as an environment for learning and studying? To mention a few, the educators for many decades have been asking how to reduce the gap between theory and practice or how to make the learning more concrete and awake an authentic curiosity of the students themselves. As described above, an environment, which arises natural questions, may catalyze a useful inquiry. The ‘after-study’ of how the things met outdoors connect with the things studied inside is crucial for storing the information gained in an applicable form for further use both in academic and real-life situations.
Another concern of adults in school has been how to create cohesion in the group so that no child or youngster would feel an outsider. According to a kindergarten teacher’s daily observations, in the forest, the children naturally developed a role-play, in which the whole group of children was involved, whereas at the regular yard the children were playing in groups of 2-5 children.
Also, the problems of concentration due to the multiple sources of stress and anxiety in our hectic societies are quickly calmed down in moments of play, study, and exercise in nature. The therapeutic elements of watching the surface of the water by the sea, river, or lake have been recognized already in ancient cultures. An animal’s presence for a student, who has not received sufficient caring attention in the middle of the hectic life of adults may be vital in fulfilling the instant need and shifting the concentration back to studying.
Never before has the concept of innovation been as widely used as in our current societies. Still, the modern constructed environment often limits creativity more than any earlier. The pandemic, which has forced us to find alternative, virus-safe learning environments, has lifted the value of nature and outdoor learning to a new level. Let’s enjoy it, and discover more!
Suvi Krista Westling is an expert on educational psychology with a broad view of education and a deep understanding of the human mind. She has graduated from and later taught students in an innovative program of educational psychology at the University of Helsinki. Her teaching has included lecturing, supervising pre-service teachers’ practice, and facilitating group processes and phenomenon-based group studies. In her research, she has studied the quality of regulation of students’ learning and activity both at school and at teacher education. She has worked as an expert in educational program design at an academic level as well as in few international organizations.